It’s a Secret To Everybody

The title comes from the original Legend Of Zelda Moblin who would give you money when you find their caves through exploration, and that is what I plan to talk about in this post. Exploration.

To quote Shigeru Miyamoto about where the inspiration for Zelda came from, ‘When I was a child, I went hiking and found a lake. It was quite a surprise for me to stumble upon it. When I traveled around the country without a map, trying to find my way, stumbling on amazing things as I went, I realized how it felt to go on an adventure like this.’ If you look at the reviews of the Zelda game, you see a lot of that, where people had to develop their own maps since the game did not directly come with one like so many games today and it didn’t have any sort of in game journal system to let you know where you were going or what needed to be done, no glowing lines to tell you how to get to your next objective.

Now, I am not saying that those are in and of themselves a bad thing. However, when I play a game like I did with Skyrim I would ignore quest markers and just wander around seeing what I could find and completing quests as I came across them. It felt like I was discovering these things, rather than the story telling me where they were. I could go anywhere and do anything, and the game wouldn’t tell me I didn’t have permission to go somewhere yet.

The video Sequelitis video on Zelda spends a lot of time talking about the series and what makes it good, including comparing Link to the Past to Ocarina of Time. In this disccusion I want to focus on where it talks about that idea of how the later Zelda games like Link to the Past and Ocarina of Time took away from the sandbox feeling of open world gaming in the original and gave a linear path, where you had to go to a place, do something and stuff happens so you can go elsewhere and repeat the process. You are not able to just go to places you want to go because you haven’t pressed a button in another place. Let’s use Death Mountain in Ocarina of Time as an example. If you want to go to Death Mountain, you need to get a royal pass and then give it to the guard who opens the gate to let you through. Sure, it may make the world a more realistic place, locking off certain areas until you get the proper authorizations, but in the end, it just makes for busywork in the quest to be a hero. Think about doing your taxes, is it fun to fill out forms? Not to mention where level design is made that you can no longer go into a world

In a game, the players want to be engaged. In a FPS they want to shoot things, while in a platformer they want to jump around, and in an RTS they want to command troops and work resources. It is all about them furthering the story that they are involved in, and in a roleplaying game, that story needs to be interactive and needs to keep their interest. Improv rule 1 is to not block the scene, rather to find ways to keep the scene going. Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley is basically Improv applied to RPGs, getting them away from all the planning, all the work and bringing them back to just being games. In some ways, this is pure exploration for both the players and the GM because you no longer have all these epic maps and quests and scripts, instead you’re going into uncharted territory and see where it gets you.

Of course, even if we don’t go to that level of improvisation, you can still have a lot of options to bring this back into games. I talked about Roguelike and Metroidvania games in my Better Video Games Make Better Gamers post, and they emphasize this. Look at videos on Youtube of people Let’s Playing Roguelikes and there will be stories where the player will have something completely unexpected happen, such as getting into a terrible situation or finding something amazing. One of the ‘If I didn’t get it on video, no one would believe it’ sort of moments.

Bringing this exploration into your roleplaying games is not all that hard, with established settings in known areas or in custom settings. You need to be willing to take the characters, but most importantly, the players out of their comfort zones. Instead of leaving them in the setting they know, change things up somewhat to challenge them in some way; take them out of the city and put them in the wilderness or in the water, or take a combat group and put them in a situation where they can’t kill or put a stealth or social party in a situation where they can’t talk or sneak out of things, have them get lost in the desert or on a mountain when a snowstorm or avalanche hits. This gives them a new challenge to face, something they are not prepared for. To quote Die Hard, ‘When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer’, so give your players new things to overcome, new puzzles to face.

An article on Gamnesia discussed why people like exploration in video games but hate it in real life. When you travel in real life, getting to your destination is your goal, so you want to get there as fast as possible; while in video game the exploration is half of the fun of the game itself.It is like going on a nature hike versus going to work; on the hike you’re out to see the sights, to explore. Another article, this time at Rock, Paper, Shotgun, talks of exploration in games stating ‘I would quite happily have played World Of Warcraft if it had been an empty landscape with nothing to do but wander around exploring. In fact, I would probably have enjoyed that even more….. I think the reason I like Oblivion was that I could just poke about in the woods and discover little shacks in the middle of nowhere.’

So, sandbox RPGs are doable as video games because players like to explore. You give people a world and they’ll go around to see where they can go, what they can do, see where the limits are. If you look at tabletop games, players aren’t really so interested in that sort of interaction. They aren’t going to sit and watch the sun set. Instead, they’re going to want to go places, to have things happen and to solve various quests, whether it be ones they create or ones the Gamemaster gives them. This is where things like From Here to There, by Goodman Games, comes into play. The book was designed as a collection of small ‘during travel’ encounters for 4e D&D, so that while your players are travelling to their next big adventure, they can randomly stumble onto a cabin in the woods and then have to deal with what happens. It was a great concept and something I think a lot of Gamemasters should have something in their arsenal; a couple small adventures that you can use to fill gaps or give your players a breath of fresh air from time to time.

Be willing to throw your players a reward for trying new things and they’ll be willing to try those new things. Give them a scenario and let them run with it if it interests them. Have something strange and unexpected happen, something which is different than what has been going on. If they’ve usually been raiding dungeons, let them encounter a group of nomads like travelling gypsies or a wagon train. Or they discover a cabin in the woods where a hermit lives. Or they discover a group of faeries in midst of playing. Any number of things, so long as it feels like they’ve just discovered a secret, the fact that they stumbled into something special.

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